By David Fleet
House numbers 139 and 140.
Two Habitat for Humanity homes under construction about 500 miles southwest of Goodrich in Owensboro, Ky.
From July 21-27, nine girls and six boys along with 10 adults from St. Mark Catholic Church Youth group made the trek to the northern Kentucky city on the banks of the Ohio River to assist Habitat for Humanity to complete the homes. While the mission assisted the Christian nonprofit organization that partners with future homeowners to build safe, decent, and affordable homes for working families—the youth’s experience parallels the humanitarian work.
“I’ve been going for 25 years to Owensboro,” said Deacon Ron Kenney, pastoral associate, making his 25th mission to Owensboro. “They always have great work for us there in Owensboro. That community holds a special place in my heart—it’s a great Christian organization and we keep getting invited back.”
In 1996, Kenney was set to take a youth church group from St. John the Evangelist Parish, Fenton on a mission to West Virginia. Just prior to the departure he received a call explaining their services were not needed. The group had raised funds for the trip and were ready to go.
“I got on the phone and contacted all the Habitat chapters within about 500 miles of Michigan,” he said. “It was on a Friday afternoon and left messages on many Habitat answering machines. On Monday only one called me back. It was Virginia Braswell.”
Braswell is the Habitat for Humanity of Owensboro-Daviess County executive director.
“In her southern accent she said, ‘you know I’ve never done this before by ya’ll come down and we’ll see what happens,’” he said.
That started a relationship which fostered 23 trips with St.John Fenton Youth group and now two trips with St. Mark Youth.
The group stayed at Mount St. Joseph’s Retreat Center, Maple Mount Ky. where they slept in a gymnasium on air mattresses for the week.
Due to a very wet spring Habitat had no cement slabs ready for new construction when the St. Mark group arrived. As a result the group assisted in the completion of an existing home.
“We worked on house number 139, the number of homes Habitat has built in Owensboro. We did all the painting on the inside of the home. We also emptied the Habitat warehouse and reorganized it for them. The majority of the times we get there we have a slab of cement and we put up the house walls. We are assisted by a volunteer construction crew, retired guys who work their tails off with the kids. They allow these kids to get in there and really work, it’s amazing.”
There was still plenty to do, Kenney said.
“I try to impress upon the youth we are going down here to work, it’s not a vacation,” he said. “It’s important they have that attitude right away. You’re going to work, you are going to get dirty, you’re going to sweat. I drive this message home and that we are away from the safety net of our home—we are gong to help other people that are less fortunate. We are not doing this mission for ourselves, or the homeowner, rather for the glory of God.”
Kenney quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. to the youth at the start of each mission.
“He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’ That’s what I tell them, you might be pulling weeds, you might be hammering a nail. It does not matter, you’re going to giving it your all.”
It’s not just the work, added Kenney.
“These kids bond together over that week,” he said. “They are not the football stars, or the high school robotics kings or the cheerleaders, rather they are just all together as kids. And they are together a lot too. They are forced into forming a community and supporting each other. We work on it and I’m on top of it.”
At the end of the week the youth group gather for prayer and reflection.
“They can share about their experiences the last day,” he said. “The kids benefit way more than Habitat does. It’s life changing for many. They will go off into life and what it has to offer, but they will take a little bit of that experience in Owensboro, Kentucky with them. The hope is the experience will open the youth up for years to come.”
By David Fleet